Since yesterday was Bastille Day, this seems as sensible a moment as any to ask: whatever happened to France? How did a once-great nation fall so low? And, are there any grounds for hoping that France may recover from this shameful, pitiful, nadir?
I speak, of course, of cycling. No Frenchman has won the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault took his fifth yellow jersey way back in 1986. Worse still, apart from Laurent Fignon (winner in 84 and 85 himself), no Frenchman has since come even close to hauling on the Maillot Jaune in Paris. It gets worse: Fignon won the Giro d'Italia in 1989 and Laurent Jalabert took the Vuelta d'Espana in 1995 but those are the only two French triumphs in the grand tours since Hinault's final Tour win.
The collapse in French cycling has been extraordinary. At the first rest day in this year's Tour, Sandy Casar is the only Frenchman in the top 30 of the General Classification. Nor, alas, is there any obvious sign that a Frenchman will win at any point in the foreseeable future. Benoit Salmon was the last Frenchman to win the Tour's Young Rider's classification, way back in 1999. Benoit who? Precisely.
Even this litany of failure understates the French failure. True, Richard Virenque was King of the Mountains seven times in the Tour (though also, of course, a confirmed doper) and Jalabert also won it twice. But apart from Jalabert (in 1992 and 95) no Frenchman has won the points competition since Hinault also took it back in 1979.
Admittedly it's not just the French who are suffering: Lucien van Impe (1977) is the only Belgian not called Eddy Merckx to have won the Tour since the Second World War. But at least the Belgians can console themselves with the production of a number of sprinters and excellent one-day Classic riders.
So what accounts for this collapse? Part of it, I suspect, is rooted in the conservative culture of French cycling. The French were slow to react, let alone adopt, new methods and new attitudes to cycling. Some of it is also, of course, due to the increasingly international nature of professional cycling. Back in Hinault's day there weren't, Greg LeMond apart, many Americans in the peloton. These days it is chock-full of English speakers from the United States or Australia, to say nothing of the Grand Tour winners who have emerged from the former Soviet Union (Tonkov, Berzin, Vinokourov, Menchov). Add to that the resurgance in Spanish cycling and you have some form of explanation for the French failure. But even allowing for all of this, the French struggles seem tough to understand. What's gone wrong?
Thoughts on this years' Tour to follow later, but if any reader can help explain this collapse in French morale and ability, I'd be very grateful...